Mixed Greens

The bigger problem with plastics

Posted 2/12/20

By now, most New Yorkers are aware that a ban on single-use plastic bags will go into effect on Sunday, March 1. While there has been some criticism of the bill’s numerous exemptions, …

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Mixed Greens

The bigger problem with plastics


By now, most New Yorkers are aware that a ban on single-use plastic bags will go into effect on Sunday, March 1. While there has been some criticism of the bill’s numerous exemptions, it’s a good start to reducing the 23 billion single-use bags state residents use each year; that amounts to more than 1,000 per person according to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. Building on the regulatory trend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed limits on another significant source of plastic pollution: single-use food containers and packing peanuts made from expanded polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam.

The full picture of plastic pollution is pretty horrifying, not only because of the sheer volume of plastic we discard every year but also the health impacts of the material’s life cycle. Much of this litter makes its way to the oceans, spoiling beaches and clogging waterways around the world. Whales, fish, birds, turtles and other wildlife die each year after ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic waste. Plastic never biodegrades—it just keeps breaking down into increasingly smaller pieces called microplastics that absorb a range of chemical pollutants, travel up the food chain to our plates and our drinking water, and accumulate in our bodies. A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology, the journal of the American Chemical Society, synthesized data from 26 separate studies to calculate that the average American’s annual microplastics consumption ranges from 74,000 to 121,000 particles each year. Americans who drink bottled water for most of their daily intake may be ingesting an additional 90,000 microplastic particles annually. The study’s authors believe these values are likely underestimated.

Plastic & Health, a study published under the auspices of a consortium led by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), provides a comprehensive analysis of the health impacts of the full life cycle of plastics: from the 170-plus chemicals used in fracking to produce fossil fuel feedstocks; through the refining process, exposures to consumers and toxins released as plastic waste is processed and managed; and the long term effects on air, soil, water and human health. The study documents impacts such as cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system impairment, damage to the skin and eyes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, all especially intense for workers in the industry and people who live near plastics facilities.

The climate impact of plastics has received less attention, but CIEL’s companion study, Plastic & Climate, tracks greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from every stage of plastic production, use and disposal, including waste to energy. The report points out that “chemical manufacturing is profoundly energy-intensive, and the production of plastic feedstocks and resins is the most energy-intensive sub-sector of the chemical industry.” The authors estimate that the production and incineration of plastic over the past year alone will add more than 850 million metric tons of GHG to the atmosphere, equal to the emissions from 189 500-megawatt coal power plants. Given the industry’s plans for expansion, the report estimates that by 2050, GHG emissions from the plastic lifecycle could reach over 56 gigatons. This is equivalent to 10 to 13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget available if we are to maintain global warming below the below 1.5°C degrees threshold. The International Energy Agency’s 2018 report, The Future of Plastics, calls this expansion “one of the key ‘blind spots’ in the global energy debate... Petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption. They are set to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030, and nearly half to 2050. Petrochemicals are also poised to consume an additional 56 billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2030, equivalent to about half of Canada’s total gas consumption today.”

Facing a decline in the use of oil and natural gas for energy generation and transportation because of progress with renewables and electric vehicles, the industry is looking to petrochemicals to perpetuate their profits, and they’ve invested more than $200 billion in the sector over the past decade, according to the American Chemistry Council. Ethane, a by-product of natural gas, is a plastics feedstock that the industry is particularly keen to exploit, given its plenitude because of the fracking boom. Long centered in Texas and Louisiana, the industry is moving aggressively into the Ohio River corridor to create a plastics hub that will exploit the Marcellus Shale; it’s being hailed as “the new coal.” Royal Dutch Shell’s new polymers plant, under construction near Pittsburgh, is the first of several ethane crackers planned for Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. These multi-billion dollar facilities will turn ethane into ethylene and polyethylene pellets, the raw material for most plastics and, according to climate experts, they could also wipe out much of the GHG reduction gains we have achieved in recent years. The US Department of Energy is spearheading $1.9 billion in loan guarantees to develop underground storage of ethane, and Pennsylvania provided roughly $1.65 billion in tax incentives for the Shell facility.

That is the bigger picture. Despite admirable local and state efforts, we are going down the wrong road with plastic production. We need to eliminate single-use plastics and all non-essential plastics throughout the economy. We need to make producers fully responsible for the full life cycle of the material. We should stop making virgin plastic altogether, and invest in innovative recycling technologies to make essential items like medical devices. We should ban incineration of all plastic waste, including waste to energy, because the GHG impact and toxic exposures for host neighborhoods are just too damaging. We should include workers’ health risks in our cost/benefit analyses before awarding giant subsidies to the plastic industry.

We grew up with plastic, but we need to face the environmental damage that comes with throwaway convenience.


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